Monday, 23 December 2013

Winter Solstice

Solstice 2010, labyrinth by Annie, Ray and Luke
I always try to mark the Winter Solstice somehow. The other year ( and I mention 2010 rather than other years because I've got photos!), unable to get the the event I'd planned, we decided to look for the creative potential in the snow that had stopped us travelling, rather than the obstacle it had presented, and went to the local playing field to map out a labyrinth.
me at the centre of the solstice labyrinth

I am drawn to labyrinths, the journey inwards, the pause at the still centre, the journey outwards, inner world, outer world ...

There was a stillness, a sense of slowing down or standstill that year; nobody was going anywhere much because of the weather - or at least not without great difficulty - an 'Isa' or Ice-time perhaps, for the Rune-lovers among us.

This year was different. I was very aware in the days preceding the 21st December, of the dominance of the night, as I spent each day around twilight and first darkness on the motorway, driving to and then heading home from visiting my Mum who is in hospital.  The first night it was just dark and blustery, but I was relieved she'd been admitted, and the moon was full.
full moon near Stokesay 2013
Clouds unvelied the moon at intervals, reminding me of her quiet companionship, and all seemed hopeful. The next night, Mum's condition was troubling me greatly. A storm whipped up, rain slashed at my tiny car and huge lorries thundered past like monsters, splattering my windscreen. I felt alone, vulnerable, sad, afraid; tears welled up and made visibility even worse. The words of a verse from a psalm became my mantra, chanted over and over:
 'Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me, for in you my soul takes refuge.
I will hide under the shadow of your wings until the destroying storms pass by.'
Psalm 57:1

It's a verse I  have been wearing in a capsule round my neck ever since our visit to Glastonbury during the October storm. I love the image of hiding under Divine wings. It's a post waiting to be written another time, and the inspiration for  my'healing book' title, 'Hiding in God', and part of its contents.

It seems I'm in the middle of a storm at present. I felt reassured by the one in October because we personally were hardly troubled by it, despite the fact that we were camping in a field. Somehow it passed us by with little more than a teasing rock of the campervan. The next morning, the sky was the brilliant blue of perfect clarity.

Chalice well blackbird
Yesterday, the day of the solstice, I pulled into the hospital car park as robins and blackbirds put their hearts into the closing songs of the day, from the nature reserve right next to the car park. I watched through windows as the light gradually diminished, pleasantly pinkish. A large part of me yearned to be outdoors in the cold fresh air, surrounded by the comfort of trees. But no, indoors was where I needed to be: outer world, inner world, outdoors, indoors, there are labarynthine times for both. The corridors and stairwells of the hospital are the pathways inwards to the safe refuge where Mum is being nursed. We wait to hear when she will emerge.

Driving home in full darkness, watching the solstice minutes, 5.17, 5.18, 5.19pm pass by on the car clock, I was accutely aware of journey. Cyclical journey, life journey. I could see the ring on my finger - a yin yang symbol, which I put on specially that morning. Change comes like the moon in the deep darkness of night. It's not been an easy solstice, nor the most well-planned for, but it's been a significant one.

 a raindrop, Meanwood park

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Spiritual Ancestors and Advent

I've been thinking lately about ancestors. It's something that came to mind partly through OBOD reading and reflecting that I've been doing as part of my exploration into earth spiritualities. Both the liturgical year and many following an earth spirituality path spend the days at the end of October and the start of November thinking about those who have gone before us, our own departed loved ones, and people special to our own traditions. It is a time where many take time to pause and remember, and many feel a 'thinniess', a closeness to a spiritual dimension beyond our own, free of the limitations of time and place. The church honours this time with All Hallows eve (Halloween), All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day. For others, Samhain (on Halloween) provides the focus. For the church, this comes before a period of further reflection on ancestors in the lead up to Christmas, which we are in at the moment - Advent.

sorry don't know who artist is
Thinking about ancestors led me to my own family tree, which Dad researched comprehensively on the Heppenstall side: a line of brick-makers, iron foundary workers, railway plate-layers and other labourers of the industrial revolution, living often in poverty, faced with tragically high infant mortality, supported it seem, by a faithfulness to Wesleyan Methodism. It led me right back to the beginnings of humanity itself, a fascination with ancient civilisations, and peoples living before any cities were ever built or farms farmed ...
It led me to our even older shared genetic material with other creatures ... fish even ...  And it led me back to the stories I love of Celtic saints. Hopefully some of the Celtic saints ideas will process themselves into the chapter of a book. But, as Advent reminds us, there's also the ancestors we've adopted (unless we are of Jewish heritage and upbringing), if we follow the Jesus path - the ancestors of the Abrahamic faith described in th Bible.

I found myself going back to something I wrote a while back:

One of the things I love about the Bible is how full it is of human beings like us, who struggle to understand life in relationship with one another and with God. A gread deal of the time, like us, they get in a mess. These people are our spiritual ancestors. Like us, many of them find themselves feeling threatened, hurt or ashamed, and their response is often to run away and hide - from human beings and from God. But there is a repeating theme in the Bible: when people go into hiding, God seeks them out, not to destroy them because of what they have done, but to bring them back into the fullness of life...
God knows their hearts and reaches them through dream, through strange natural phenomena, through angels and other people, through Jesus himself. I think there is a vital message of grace for us to draw hope from: God does not give up on us, whatever misfortune has happened to us, even when we are inclined to give up on God.
(an extract from 'Rejoice with me!: hope for lost sheep' by me, p.28)

Whatever challenges I am facing, there have been people before me, whether in my family or in the big picture of my faith or the bigger picture of humanity, who have faced something comparable - or something worse - but whose struggle with it has entered into the whole struggle of what it is to be a human being at all, trying to survive, to allow another generation to survive, to live as much as possible, given the constraints, with integrity. There's a sense of companionship in this which has surprised me, a sense of continuity and connection with the past, and the people of the past who shaped the world and our own identities today. 

There's a line in the Apostles' Creed, which has come alive for me lately - 'the communion of the saints'. Most people whose stories have been handed down to us, are not 'saints' in the normal understanding of the word, any more than we are,  but their whole endeavour to just keep going day by day, is enough. There's been a great deal of suffering, we've caused a great deal of suffering, some of those in the past in their inability to see the future have caused us a great deal of suffering today, but looking back and looking around too, something about the dignity of just being human still shines through - sometimes it seems against all odds. I live in hope that it's the dignity that will win through to give us a future.

rainbow near Whitby Abbey

Monday, 9 December 2013

Mother Earth Father Sky

chapel within a small and old church in Exmoor

I confess I haven't been to church all that much in the last six months since Dad died. I have been finding the 'Father God' language of liturgy and many well-meaning believers' vocabulary a real obstacle: muddling up paternal mortality with the eternal divine just wasn't working for me at all. I've never been all that comfortable with it anyway. Whenever I heard 'our Father,' I couldn't get past the fact: 'my father is dead.' It all felt quite Nietzche-esque, and existentially unhelpful.
In that time, a time where of course my Mum's needs came into sharp relief, and my relationship with her changed and perhaps deepened, the divine feminine became more real and more important to me; often it seemed as though a loving presence was saying, 'Don't give up on me, I can be Mother as well, I can be whatever allows you to relate to me in love...' I've described some of my journeying deeper into the Feminine Divine in other blogs, such as Rock Mother and St Non's Holy Well. Although often hard work, this has been an enriching time that has allowed me to listen to and engage warmly with, and felt ministered to, by the spiritual journeys and wisdom of others, especially of an earth-spirituality inclination - Pagan.  I was, or so it seemed to me, finding 'Christ in friend and stranger' at a time when I was struggling to find the consolation I needed to hear from some of the sources I might have expected to find it. Here is a verse from the well-known prayer of St Patrick, the Lorica:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

But today Ray was preaching and presiding in an Anglican church not far from home, so I went with him very readily, sure of a good sermon and a sensitively offered liturgy. As usual we arrived early so he could get ready, and I picked a pew with a view, beneath a radiator.
Even though it's not a church I often visit, I had a strong feeling of having returned home after a long journey. The question quickly came into my mind, 'How might this place look, not through eyes brought up in the Christian tradition, but through eyes more used to an earth spirituality outlook?' I looked around.
Such a one might, for example, hope to find animal guides or totems. Why yes, a dove, at the highest point of the stained glass window above the altar; a glorious eagle in flight for a lecturn. I couldn't see a lamb, but there could have been one, or a lion - or both - or  if it had been a much older church, a whole host of different creatures carved in woodwork and stone, all with their special significance, from pelicans to panthers, hares to green men  (which I've also blogged about). Maybe the 'totem' in this place might be seen as a dove.

two angels from the church at Stokesay, Midlands - spot the dove
What about Spiritual guardians or Powers ? Well, there were Pre-Raphelite (I thought) paintings of beautiful humanoid beings with wonderful wings and auras of gold, communicating with people or watching over them, mediators of something beyond us ... 
What about the ancestors? Again, carvings and pictures of holy people from the stories of the Bible and the Christian tradition abound, and of course many respectful and loving memorials to the dead of the community over the years, their names all around us inviting remembrance ...
What about life itself and death? What else but the representation of a young man giving himself up to a terrible ordeal for the sake of  others ... death, as brutal as it can be, but holding a hope of something more, an empty tomb, a gleaming, empty cross, brass glowing in the candlelight.

And what about the Mother (not that I'm suggesting that the feminine is only 'divine' through materninty)? Well, to the right was a chapel with a permanent focus on the mother and child, and to the left, a banner on the other side of the church bearing the same icon and the heartening inscription of solidarity, 'Mothers' Union'. But what else about the Mother?  I cast around for more.
in a church at Bishop's Castle

As I looked about me, the red brick of the walls said 'earth baked in fire!' The pillars said 'tree trunk!' The wooden roof beams said 'tree branches!' Carvings of foliage, a vine on one of the altars, flowers surreptitiously away from display but still present (because it's Advent), a beautiful water feature at the door, the glow of many candles ... the all said 'Beautiful, elemental life in abundance!'

This interior is earth, and here we sit, being earthy, within this earthy chamber we have made to shelter us, surrounding ourselves with images of creation. Here is the Mother.
 In Hebrew, 'earth' is a feminine noun, eretz; in Greek, 'creation' is a feminine noun, ktisis, it's us, all that we are and know is of Her. So we come here, we of the Mother's body, to remind ourselves that way beyond us, earth had its awesome beginnings in the reeling infinity of the universe. We come to look beyond ourselves as well as within, to wonder, to be grateful for the sunrise, the astonishing - and continuous - way that heaven touches and warms and enlightens earth and our hearts and makes life possible. Rising Son for rising sun - for what direction is the church pointing to, with its altar and lovely coloured glass window? East, to greet the rising sun. What, indeed, are we waiting for in the time of Advent, that is not represented by the return of the sun's strength at the winter solstice, days before Christmas day? the term 'Sky Father' comes to mind. 

Sky and earth ... Shrophshire last summer
There's a quote attributed to God, in Jeremiah 23:24 - 'Do I not fill heaven and earth?'
This is no dull earth simply to be exploited and from which we should try to escape in order to attain the heavenly; it's a vibrant, amazing creation already infused with the Spirit and the Wisdom of the Divine - Great Spirit. A visually, symbolically rich church building such as the one I was sitting in proclaims this in its orientation, its architecture and ornament. God is not simply and unattainably 'up there', but here, around us - and mysteriously - within us, within the very fabric of our being ... and I haven't even bugun to touch on the mystery of the Eucharist ...  We don't have to divide up body and spirit, earthly and heavenly. God fills all, even us, even bread and wine. We don't need tiresome arguments about God's gender - God fills all, transcendent and immanent.

Somehow I feel more at peace than I have for a long time, I'm not fighting the language so much today. I can hear the words about the Father, because I can also sense the Mother all around; there is One. Yes, I'd like more acknowledgement of the Feminine Divine in Church; no, I'm not advocating nature worship, rather, nature respect, but in this place I feel that 'She' hasn't been banished. I don't feel quite so defensive on 'Her' part as I did yesterday or the day before, and interestingly, that's because I allowed myself to go exploring the places where 'She' is celebrated more directly, and came back to find Her valued in different - if unspoken - ways.
Blessed Be.

vine at Edgbaston Botanical garden

Saturday, 12 October 2013

'Patience is a virtue ...'

I have been doing a bit of teaching this term, after a 'career gap' of a few years. I trained as a primary school teacher back in 1992, and always said I didn't want to teach anyone who was bigger than me - which is 5 ' 1 1/2'' . I like creative subjects, art and music, nature study and writing poetry. I like calm and mutual respect, I like humour and a story before hometime. On an ideal day, when all is going well, it can be a very rewarding, if intensive thing to do, in my mind a little like the satisfaction of a sailing dinghy set well to skim across a sunny lake.

I've always found there are a lot of things on a day to day basis and on a wider scale, which impact on that idyll. I don't want to go into all those many things right now, not the government directives or the conflicts and other issues children bring in from their 'outside' lives, not the complicated dynamics among the work team, not the pressure to raise standards, meet targets, cope with nose bleeds, provide drinking water, address the needs of 30 emerging individuals who are each the most precious of people in their parents' eyes, forever sensitive to their uniqueness but guiding them towards the collective ... some of these things are natural and understandable, they make the journey more interesting and add momentum and meaning to the day. Other things occur less helpfully, initiated by children, adults, events, even the weather, like the wake of a speed boat zooming past and churning up the waters, setting the sails and ropes flapping and the crew working flat out to steady the boat. Experience often helps us see trouble coming and change tack - but even so, not everything can be anticipated.
It occured to me the other day, heading home after a bit of a choppy lake experience, that it is telling me a recurring 'something' about myself. It's easy to just blame the metaphorical speed boat, but if it's gone, why am I'm still irritated? This feeling of inner turbulence is not new.

There's a saying attributed to St Francis, writing to his friars:

How much interior patience and humility a servant of God may have cannot be known so long as he is contented.  But when the time comes that those who ought to please him go against him, as much patience and humility as he then shows, so much has he and no more.
Admonitions: On Patience

I find myself challenged because my day, my response, shows me exactly how far I have advanced along the spiritual practise I have set myself, of patience-learning: not very far! I see how I go out as teacher yet find the whole environment, the pressures, the people, including the children, to be my teachers in a different way, and I, a rather slow learner.

I used to reflect on the same quote from St Francis, when Nelly the dog was alive. I'd never looked after a dog before, I'm more a cat person really, and working at home, I found her attention-seeking intrusion into my quietness, barking at the door, asking to go out, fussing for me to come down from my study to be with her ... sometimes tried my patience too. I used to say she was my patience-teacher, and I knew I often failed. The thing about Nelly was that she was very forgiving. She's not around any more and I have to remember to forgive myself becuse that's what she would have done - but oh for the gift to be able to re-set my sails and delight in the big waves, and go home energised!

Monday, 7 October 2013

99 Beautiful Names

This Saturday Ray and I went to Lichfield, leading a morning on engaging with other faiths, for a Christian gathering. My contribution was a workshop on the 99 Beautiful Names of God from the Islamic tradition, what they have meant to me in my own spiritual journey, and inviting participants to enter into spiritual engagement with some of the names themselves.
door of the great hall, Stokesay castle
We began the hour with an intentional prayer to God the Opener, Ya Fatah, to open our hearts and minds. Al Fatah is the 19th name, one that, to me, evokes the idea of a door being unlocked, a blocked path cleared, so that we can move on, or invite a guest in.

the spring at Chalice Well, Glastonbury

The next name we reflected on was the 48th, al Wadood, the  Loving.  I described how remembrance of the name through repetition by chanting, seems to me like water trickling onto a stone, gradually eroding it.

We invoked God, 'O Loving one', Ya Wadood, softly repeating the name over and over, imagining the presence of God softening our hearts.

Ar Rahmaan, Ar Raheem, the compassionate, the merciful,  led us into a fuller chant, standing in a circle of about 30 people, passing a prayer rope of 99 knots between our hands to count the repetitions as our voices grew stronger. To me, it means a great deal that these two names share a root (as in Hebrew) with the word for womb. The mercy and compassion invoked by Ya Rahman Ya Raheem seems to me to be the powerful, self-giving, unconditional, deep compassion of a mother, who can see all people, all creatures, as somebody's daughter, somebody's son, each, a beloved being of intrinsic worth.

We closed the session with the 6th name, As Salaam, a name invoking deep peace, perfect peace, a name which shares a root with its sister in the Hebrew language, Shalom. Ya Salaam, Ya Salaam, Ya Salaam, O Perfect Peace, O Perfect Peace, O Perfect Peace.

I didn't have time during the workshop to talk about one of the underlying reasons for my interest in the names, and engaging with Islam more generally. Ray describes in his book, A Heart Broken Open - Radical faith in an age of fear, how St Francis went to Egypt to meet with a Sultan at the time of the crusades, crossing a battle field to get to him.

detail from an icon by Br Robert Lentz OFM

The encounter was rich and it seems both the Sultan and Francis earned one anothers' respect, and in the process a deeper respect for their respective faiths. Although Francis had gone with the intention of bringing Christ to the Sultan (or vice versa), he came away inspired by ways to deepen his own Christian faith practise. On his return he wrote advice for friars on going humbly among 'the Saracens', or Muslims, and said that as the name of God was called out, all should fall down on their knees in prayer. One particular prayer that he wrote seems very much to be inspired by the 99 beautiful names of God which he must surely have heard and perhaps reflected on, as the Sultan's guest.

You are holy, Lord, the only God,
and Your deeds are wonderful.
You are strong.
You are great.
You are the Most High.
You are Almighty.
You, Holy Father are King of heaven and earth.
You are Three and One, Lord God, all Good.
You are Good, all Good, supreme Good,
Lord God, living and true.
You are love. You are wisdom.
You are humility. You are endurance.
You are rest. You are peace.
You are joy and gladness.
You are justice and moderation.
You are all our riches, and You suffice for us.
You are beauty.
You are gentleness.
You are our protector.
You are our guardian and defender.
You are our courage. You are our haven and our hope.
You are our faith, our great consolation.
You are our eternal life, Great and Wonderful Lord,
God Almighty, Merciful Saviour.

St Francis of Assisi

This peaceable connection so long ago, at a time of such terrible conflict, has so much to say to us today in our mutual trust-building. The Franciscan Tertiary website has an article by Hugh Beach on the story, 'on those going among the Saracens' as a starting place for further exploration.

To me, this story is not only one of the reasons why I feel it appropriate to meditate on the 99 names as part of my own spiritual practise, but at the same time, why I also feel it appropriate to follow St Francis's very humble lead, who in his simple woolen tunic and his ecstatic love, must have seemed to the Sultan, not unlike  the Sufi mystics of his own tradition.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Hiding in God - companionship during health concerns

'Hiding in God' is a collection of reflections and prayers on physical and mental health concerns, published by Kevin Mayhew, drawing on my personal experiences. It ranges from the effects of medication to general anaesthetic, from the interminable waiting for results, to the experience of anger, fear and weariness ... and it's dedicated to all who work for the NHS, in gratitude for my own experiences of care. I wrote it while recovering from a hysterectomy a few years ago and it's written in a spirit of friendly companionship, towards anyone going through or coming to terms with a hard time health-wise. I have been very grateful and touched to receive warm feedback from a number of people for whom it has been given as a gift, during a challenging time.

photographer unknown but appreciated
'Hiding in God' is an allusion to two different images in the Bible. The first, is the image of a bird sheltering nestlings under her wings, and it occurs often, especially in the psalms but also by Jesus when he says he would like to shelter the inhabitants of Jerusalem like a mother hen sheltering her brood of chicks. There's a guided visualisation towards the end of the book on this theme, for those who like thant kind of thing.

 The other image is of a cave, as God is often referred to as our refuge, and in some instances as a rock - even the rock who gives us birth (Deuteronomy 32:18). For this too, there is a guided visualisation, leading the reader to a safe cave of refuge for some rest and time-out.  Both the bird and the cave can be seen as feminine expressions of the Divine.

 I wanted to be able to reach out to people from diverse backgrounds and experiences, including the many women whose emotional (and sometimes physical) health issues are related to difficulties with male authority figures, and partly for this reason I have avoided the use of 'He / Him' for God, throughout.
Chalice Well springs, Glastonbury

Other themes for visualisations include spirings of living water, trees of healing, a lantern in the dark and the presence of angels.
The thought behind each, is to offer images and impressions which invite a degree of relaxation, even peace, or the memory or hope of something, somewhere or someone comforting.

The first part of the book offers short reflections with  reference to Scripture and prayers. The first prayer in each section expresses the 'trouble', the discomfort, the anxiety, the concern. The second prayer is a 'healing prayer,' of reconciliation, hope, peace and gentleness. For example, the first prayer under 'Facing a Fear' begins, 'I have always dreaded the thought of this, O God, and now it seems inescapable ...' Following a reflection on the words of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, the second prayer begins, 'My Shepherd, how well you know me. If I am to face my fears then give me courage. If I am to walk a path through that valley of shadows then let me sense your presence with me ...'

What the book is not, is a 'pray for a miracle and keep hoping!' book, or a book that suggests health issues are due to a lack of faith. I don't doubt miracles do happen, and I don't doubt that many feel their deepest prayers have been answered, which is a wonderful thing. But then, the rest of us who just have to cope with sickness, anxiety, weariness and the rest, patiently and quietly as we and our loved ones try to keep going day be day, need to know we too are cherished by God, and held safe, come what may. It's a book of God's presence no matter what, a book of God's love for us even in our fragility and brokenness. It's a book of companionship for lonely, confusing, frightening times, written with much love, having been there myself.

one bird comforting another, while waiting to be re-housed -  they are now in a better environment.

Friday, 13 September 2013

The Healer's Tree: for personal and group reflection on ecology, peace and justice

I was delighted that the Church Times recently wrote a lovely comment on my Greenbelt workshop, in which they mentioned 'The Healer's Tree: a Bible-based resource on ecology, peace and justice'. (You have to scroll way down to the Worship section!)
It's a book which takes a journey through 28 reflections, beginning with the ideal of the garden of Eden. Here is an extract from the introduction:

'We start our journey in a garden, shaped and nurtured by an unseen gardener whose presence is all around. It is an archetypal garden transcending time and space, for which we still have an ancestral picture-map etched on our hearts tracing a path back, like the migration paths of wild geese... 
The Bible's account of Eden gives us something very precious: a spiritual earth in which to take root; a home. From this place we can grow and realise peaceful interconnectedness with all life, all humanity. It is a centring point against which we can check our experience of reality... 

There is and always has been a miracle-place where we can walk with God, who calls us forever through the lattice in the wall we have erected, 'for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come ... arise my love, my fair one and come away (from Song of Songs 2:10-13)' 
The whispered invitation rings like a bell through eternity; the Lover of All waits with longing for us to come back and walk again in the cool of the evening, where we were always meant to be.

Is that You,
whispering one,
urging me secretly to walk
in the garden's singing time with You?
Always so soft your voice,
how long have you been at my window,
and I did not know? 
Forgive me,
for it has seemed an eternity
since, loving as one,
we walked together
in the light of a new creation.

The subsequent chapters, which I illustrated with pen and ink drawings, include reflections on trees, stones and other aspects of nature which feature in the Bible and Celtic Christian tradition, from the Tree of Knowledge to the Scottish forests of Bedenoch, from the cedars of Lebanon to the Irish Hazels of Wisdom. There are stories of some of the Celtic saints - Kevin, Malangell, Aidan and Columbanus, and their interactions with the creatures and wild places of their environments. There are reflections on desert and mountain, forest and the wastelands of human destruction, the process of coming to terms with our own violence as well as our capacity to be peace-makers ... all part of the long journey home.

 The Healer's Tree is, as the subtitle says, a resource for personal and group reflection, on themes of ecology, peace and justice - created with Lent and Advent groups, house groups and bible study sessions in mind, but also for quiet use at home or to take away on retreat.There are a number of lovely reviews on the internet, here's one by Nick Horton on the Good Book Stall

GoodBookStall Review:
As with many Wild Goose publications, the introductory material is an integral part of the book and only on reading that will the rest of the book reach its full impact.
Annie Heppenstall has written these 28 reflections in a ‘journey sequence’. Perhaps daily over a month – or during a season – Advent, Lent, the Creation Season I would suggest that they also provide a really constructive framework for (especially non-eucharistic) worship.
Her title comes from the Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood, in which the tree grows to become the Cross – the ‘gateway for people to come to Christ’s healing love’. From the Garden of Eden, through the Yggdrasil – the tree of life – to legends associated with a number of Celtic saints and finally to the riverbank – coming home – each section begins from a verse or two of Scripture, opening out into a meditation/reflection, some suggestions for further reflection then lead us into a closing thought – again scriptural – and a final sentence.
Personal favourites are ‘All that breathes, praise the Lord’ focussing on Caedmon of Whitby, called by some the first poet of the English language, and ‘St Kevin and God’s mercy’, bringing back very happy memories of a visit to Glendalough in the mid-1990s. But one of the most moving relates to Elijah in the desert and his experiences of awesome natural forces – earthquake, wind and fire – before the breathtaking silence of God’s presence.
Annie Heppenstall’s glorious pen and ink drawings not only beautify the book but also complement and enhance the text. This is a book that you will come back to repeatedly and each time find a new pearl upon which to ponder.
I cannot recommend it too highly.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Apples, the Bible and Beyond

As a child, one of my nickneames was 'Annie Apple', so it was a bit spooky when someone brought out a reading scheme for children, the first character in the line up being called 'Annie Apple'. Among her friends were the Wicked Water Witch, who for ideological reasons later morphed (or shape shifted) into Walter Walrus, Lucy Lamp Lady (hmmm) who became Lucy Lamp Light and Robber Red, who became a robot. (I know these things because I am qualified as a primary school teacher.)
I used to eat a lot of apples, I eat fewer now, which fills me with remorse. But I do like them,  they make me think of orchards, blossom, bees and places like Glastonbury. One of the things I like about them, is slicing them across instead of down, to get a pentegram of pips. This happens because, or at least so I believe, but please correct me, the apple is a member of the rose family. According to my 'Trees and bushes of Europe,' the rose family is distinguished by flowers with five sepals and petals, and sometimes five ovary chambers, and as well as the rose and the apple, includes such trees as the quince, pear, plumb, cherry, rowan (this is the book not me), hawthorn and blackthorn. So there you go.

One of the delights of blogging, I am discovering, is that you can have a conversation with someone or read something you disagree with, then instead of telling them, or wasting energy thinking 'I wish I'd said X ...', you can have a nice impersonal blog about it later.Forgive me, but that's exactly what I'm doing now.

Caucasian Adam and Eve- not one of mine :-)
Recently, I had an exchange about apples with a respected someone following an earth spirituality path, which included 'yes but in the Bible the apple is to do with sin and fallenness and guilt, but in our spirituality it's to do with the summerland and wholeness.' That hurt a bit. For a start, I have to say I prefer the thought of summerland and wholeness / healing to the thought of guilt and brokenness, and I get a bit sensitive about the need for 'them and us' polarisations sometimes too. But the thing that riled me, is that the apples are innocent. In the biblical story of Adam and Eve, the Tree of Knowledge is not an apple tree. It's a special tree, as yet to be given a Latin botanical name.

But if we are really  looking for apple trees in the Bible, where better than the Song of Songs?

As an apple tree among the trees of the wood,
   so is my beloved among young men.
With great delight I sat in his shadow,
   and his fruit was sweet to my taste. 

Song of Songs 2:3 (NRSV)


from Stasys Krasauska's amazing 'windmills of your mind'
Who is that coming up from the wilderness,
   leaning upon her beloved? 

Under the apple tree I awakened you.
There your mother was in labour with you;
   there she who bore you was in labour. 

Song of Songs 8:5(NRSV)

 These are biblical passages I have learned off by heart, and I'm sure I'm not alone - it doesn't have to be a frumpy faith. (A surprise to some Christians as well as some neo-Pagans.) Eroticism provides the language for mystical depth as well as the delightful sensuality of human beings enjoying themselves, right at the heart of the Bible.
So. Apples. They are not the forbidden fruit of temptation, they are a symbol of delight, fruitfulness and love, the joy the Divine Lover finds in us and we in our Beloved.
The Song of Songs is part of the Hebrew scriptures, which do tend to convey the wonder and beauty of the natural world with great eloquence, but from the Christian tradition, there's a lovely song which often comes around at Christmas time for some reason- 'Jesus Christ the Apple Tree'.

one of my proto-book illustrations

Monday, 2 September 2013

on the trail of the Green Man

around midday Sept 1st, Tewkesbury Abbey
We spent some lovely hours in and around Tewkesbury Abbey this weekend, including the 11am sung Eucharist with a fine sermon and sublimely executed liturgy. I'm not always a big fan of large eclessiastical buildings, but the light seemed to play with the architecture & paintwork and for a while I could imagine the pillars as forest tree trunks, branches meeting in the sky-roof, each intersection marked with a carved nodule.

These nodules or roof bosses are worth having a good look at. In Tewkesbury Abbey, apparently, over 50 of them are carved with Green Men - or more correctly, as the leaflet points out, 'foliate figures', as there are also green ladies and lions (I found lions but I'm not sure if any of the ones I spotted were female, they are quite high up!)

One of my illustrations from 'The Healer's Tree'
One of the things I really love about Green Men in churches (and I wrote a reflection on it in The Healer's Tree) is that nobody really knows what they are doing there, although plenty of people offer all sorts of suggestions.

Foliate faces are ancient and can actually be traced back across the old trade routes (like the Three Hares motif, see one of my other posts), as far away as the temples of India. Although they look very 'English countrysideish', they, like trees, know no borders.

A theory is that travelling craftworkers dragooned into crusading, noticed the designs and brought them back with them, since it's around this time that they start appearing in English - and other European - churches. That might tell us how they got here, but not why they found their way into churches of all places.

I've heard some argue that the wild (and lustful) natural human is being brought to submission by a higher authority (yawn), that the wild nature spirits are being brought to submission by a higher authority (yawn again), that the wild, natural realms of the earth are subject to a higher authority (yawn) ... so much wearisome stuff about power and dominion, that old obsession with control. Then, I've also heard gleeful Pagan suggestions that the stonemasons were hoodwinking the church patrons by sneaking in the treasured motifs of their own 'Old Ways'- a kind of spiritual subversion. Well, maybe, although the subversion must have been pretty blatant in this particular Abbey, almost a Pagan coup.
Green Man above  high altar - not the best photo, sorry!

 But then there are also suggestions which allow for a different world-view, about the church building representing the whole of creation, the high roof expressing the expanse of the heavens, and the inclusion within that space of all that is ... words of inclusion, welcome, belonging... and the bond between humanity and the natural world. Wandering round Tewkesbury Abbey, the idea that the architects and craftworkers who built the place thought so inclusively, seemed quite plausible; the roof bosses bring myriad expressions of life together with illustrations from the Bible and glorious angels, joyously and with humour and reverence. Although I couldn't get to it as the chancel gate was locked, the boss directly above the high altar is (or so it seems to me, correct me if I'm wrong) a golden Green Man. Would he really have been allowed so 'high up' unless he were welcome?

 Those (and there are some) who want to suggest that the Green Man represents a sinful, lustful, bestial or amoral aspect of fallen humanity, need to look quite closely. Among the bosses, quite a few show vine leaves and bunches of grapes flowing from the mouth.

In such a case, is the artist not using this motif, known and loved across so many lands, to illustrate the words of Jesus from John's Gospel,
'I am the true vine ...' ? (John 15:1)
Was the artist not offering the Christ to an illiterate laity? And if one boss can be seen as a Gospel proclamation, can we not hope to find Christ in the others too, should we wish to interpret them in such a way? 'No!' you might argue, 'It's Bacchus or Dionysus, it's a picture of Pagan revelry ...' Well, see it that way if it means more to you, but we do have a choice. I don't think there's one 'right' answer to how we should read these characters; there's great freedom for us to make our own minds up.

The Green Man is not the only enigma in the church. It's not the only instance of choice or freedom of interpretation either. As with so many things, the way we choose to interpret such archetypal symbols as these, in the end, I think, says more about what's going on in our own hearts and minds, than any absolute 'reality.' 
There seems to be so much agonising, so much questioning about belief among many of us spiritual seekers, as though there is a deep need to get it right and work it all out, cerebrally - but - being Biblical for a moment - God sees the  heart (1 Samuel 16:7). Never mind the theories, what's your gut reaction to a face spewing out leaves? How does it move you? Unease or delight? Reassurance or challenge? Conflict or peace? Acceptance or rejection? Fear, or love? What place is there in your faith, your heart, your church for this ancient and mysterious foliate figure?

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Rock Mother at St Govan's Chapel?

St Govan's Chapel is a tiny 13th or 14th century chapel wedged between the cliffs of a creek, opening out on the sea of Pembrokeshire, Wales. It is built on a much older foundation, around 6th century - 'Celtic'. You can just see the roof in the photo on the left. We decided to make it the last stage of our holiday the other week, as a kind of pilgrimage or time to reflect, before heading home. I'd been some years ago and knew it was special, but this time, I saw things I hadn't noticed last time ...

We had already been to St Non's well and chapel, and been struck by the sense of the Feminine Divine in the place - see my earlier post, St Non's Well - including the presence of two rock arches flanking the holy site. Well at St Govan's, there are also two rock arches, one on either side of the gap in the cliffs, which (I'm guessing so by all means correct me) was once caused by water erosion from a once strong stream which used to run beneath the location of the chapel and the well further down, but which has now dried up.

the arch on the right!

 These were two impressive rock arches and I found myself sitting looking out to sea, with my back to the chapel, one arch on my left and one on my right, and wondering - again - if there had been some ancient attraction to this place, and whether folk had come to sit like us, even before there was a chapel, because of the place itself. There had been a spring, after all, which used to bubble up through crevices and flow on down to the sea, and the steps are worn near the old well-housing, by the feet of travellers seeking healing.

The chapel itself is tiny and interesting. East-facing to greet the rising sun, it has a small well hole in the floor which I thought might just catch the winter midday sun. Above that is an alcove where someone had sprinkled ashes, and to the right, below the tiny 'dawn light' window, a stone altar, alleged to contain the bones of Govan himself.
Adjacent to the altar is a doorway and through here, according to legend, is a crevice where Govan hid from raiders. There are rib-like marks in the rock, which closed around him until danger passed. But the crevice smelt like a urinal, I was saddened, and decided to come back the next day to clean it.
Ray at the altar, facing East

This we did! Early next morning we carried 2 litres of water from the campsite and washed the rocks down, singing Taize chants in Latin, under our breath. Something about the place made us feel it would 'remember' sung Latin and feel soothed.
As I washed the crevice where Govan was said to have hidden, I noticed something. The ribs are just part of the story - below the ribs, is ... well, what do you see?

I took this on my mobile - behind St Govan's Chapel
I saw a female figure, as tall as myself, a mature woman in the rock, upright, naked, wide-thigh'd, arms behind her back, reddish against the grey stone. How had I possibly missed her when I visited before? But it seems countless visitors have been overlooking her for centuries, looking just above her head at the rib marks. I've never heard anyone mention a 'goddess' behind St Govan's - yet she's been here all the time, way older than the chapel.
Who did see her? Who did come here to visit her? Who told the tale for the first time, of her protective embrace of a poor frightened man, fleeing for his life? How could this place not have been sacred to the Divine Feminine, with this figure in the rock?

I left Wales feeling I had been given a gift. There's a verse in the Bible that springs to mind:

You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you;
   you forgot the God who gave you birth. 

Deuteronomy 32:18

I don't want to forget anymore. I want to remember. 

Monday, 26 August 2013

Celtic Cross as Lifemap: Greenbelt workshop post 2

If you are in this photo and would rather not be visible, I can remove it if you contact me.
I was very pleased to welcome over 50 people to the Grove, a lovely 'fringe' sacred space created by Forest Church and friends, at Greenbelt this year, with arches and foliage marking the four directions.
Although we just had an hour, which meant we could only really begin to enter into the idea of the Celtic Cross as a life map, a lot of people came up afterwards to say that they had connected at quite a deep level and were going away feeling inspired or even significantly helped along the way. It's always really rewarding and humbling to hear such things, and thank you for sharing if you were one of those.

I was also asked if I could bring the workshop in its expanded form to other venues - yes I can! If you are interested and don't have my contact details look for me on Facebook or twitter @HephzibahAnnie, I look forward to hearing from you!

Monday, 19 August 2013

Celtic Cross as Life Map - my Greenbelt workshop

Cross at St Non's chapel, Pembrokeshire

I was delighted to be asked to offer a reflective workshop in the Grove at Greenbelt this year (12-1pm Saturday 24th Aug '13!) and have been having a good time planning it out. Yesterday I was out on a local field with lots of rope, forming a large Celtic Cross and pacing it out, labyrinth-like - to the bemusement of at least one dog-walker!

I took some pains to align the cross to the four directions. In Christianity, East has always held great significance. Being the direction the sun rises each morning, it is equated symbolically with the risen Christ who appeared to the women in the early morning of the first Easter. Traditional churches honour the East, the congregation faces this way, towards the altar.

Moving with the sun, in a southerly position at midday, we hear about Saul's blinding midday encounter with Christ, which challenges him to the core.
As evening draws on and the sun begins to set in the west, we can reflect on the story of the first people, who knew God to walk in the garden in the cool of the evening (Genesis 3:8). The north is equated with night time, rest, meditation and waiting in hope for the return of the sun.

So, we measure our days, our months, our years, our lives with the cycling of the sun, moon and earth. The church year too, falls into the pattern, interweaving holy days and seasons with natural and agricultural events, helping us to locate ourselves and live meaningfully.

But the cross allows us to return to the centre, it allows us to look back, to dream of a future, to focus on the heart, the hub of this great wheel. In the Christian faith, wherever the path leads, wherever we go, whatever our time of life, Christ is at the centre, at the heart, and Christ is encircling us.

The Celtic church had a tradition of the 'caim', a prayer of protection, recited while rotating in a circle, drawing an imaginary ring around oneself with a finger. There are plenty to choose from; here is one on the theme of a garment, from my Wild Goose Chase book (page 98), which I have drawn on for the workshop:

Encompass me, 
O God of goodness,
my form to surround,
my being to hold close
in the wrap of your loving.

We will chant from the Psalms, as we tread our way around the circle:

You made the moon to mark the seasons
and the sun knows when to go down ...'
Psalm 104:19

And we will sing a verse from Jeremiah, as we contemplate the cross at the centre:

Stand at the crossroads and look,
and ask for the ancient paths;
ask where the good way lies and walk in it,
and so find rest for your souls.
Jeremiah 6:16